Ken Jones: Fascination of Italian strategy outweighs Premiership's frenzy

Wednesday 13 November 2013 05:07
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Some pretty harsh words have been fired off from this space in response to ludicrous suggestions that no league in the world matches up to the Premiership. Take away the top six and what have you got? Frenzy, technical limitations, the work ethic predominant. Many games that are instantly forgettable, few that live up to the hyperbole of Sky Sports.

That the Premiership grows in popularity takes some explaining. However, a clue could be found at San Siro last Saturday night when Milan defeated Internazionale 1-0 to maintain a challenge to Juventus for the Italian championship. Since Inter were similarly placed, and many notable players, including the ageless Paolo Maldini, Andrei Shevchenko, Filippo Inzaghi, Fabio Cannavaro, Luigi Di Biagio and Christian Vieri took the field in a spectacular atmosphere, it had all the makings of terrific game.

It was soon evident, however, that the dead hand of caution rests as firmly as ever on Italian football. There was much to admire in the defensive play (superior to any in the Premiership) and intelligent general application but neither team was prepared to take a risk. Inzaghi won the game with a second-half goal but goalmouth incidents were few.

A few hours afterwards, I was holed up in a friendly bar near to the centre of Milan with a group of football travellers from these shores who had persuaded me to make the trip, a decision I reluctantly reached since it meant missing the Masters on television and the progress in that event of one or two players who had taken my fancy.

My companions represented various age groups and all were knowledgeable about football, paying little or no account to newspaper reports and television punditry. It was generally agreed that the match we had seen did not come up to their idea of football entertainment. One pointed out that 42 minutes had passed before either goalkeeper was required to make a proper save, another that goalmouth incidents were rare. "I guess it's what Italian supporters have grown up with, but it wouldn't do for me, week after week at home," he said. "There are plenty of poor games in the Premiership, any number of players who wouldn't get a living over here, but it's seldom that you come away from a game complaining that hardly anything happened."

Later on, by which I mean at a more civilised hour, I scanned La Gazzetta Sportiva with the help of an Italian friend, a Juventus supporter who has lived in London for many years and runs a highly successful restaurant in Beckenham. La Gazzetta's chief football correspondent was highly critical of the game, particularly of Inter, describing their performance as "non-football". There may have been some excuse for Inter when their right-back Ivan Cordoba was sent off 21 minutes into the second half, but Inzaghi's goal four minutes earlier should have stirred them into a more urgent effort.

The conversation went around and eventually involved two men from the locality, who joined our group and expressed astonishment over Manchester United's 6-2 victory at Newcastle. One of them asked: "What do these results tell us? We saw Manchester United outclassed by Real Madrid in the Champions' League, then they outplay one of the best teams in England. Such a result could not happen between the best teams in Italy."

"You're looking at a different mentality," I said. "A different mentality and the unavoidable fact the defensive play in the Premiership falls well short of the standards long since set in Italy. But it's mentality that creates the difference."

Coaches in England attempt to compensate for collective shortcomings by demanding a maximum effort. Gloomily reflecting on a recent 6-1 home loss to Leeds United, the Charlton manager, Alan Curbishley, put it down to the failure of his players to maintain the required standards of application and commitment. "Once we fail to put teams under pressure, we're in trouble," he said.

In similar circumstances, teams placed midway in the scudetto adopt a more negative policy, hanging on to the hope that they can snatch something from the game. "I don't think I could be bothered to watch," one of my companions said.

Personally, I found last Saturday's contest at San Siro fascinating. However, I take the point. Technically, the Premiership is not all that it's cracked up to be but it has the merit of adventure.

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